I saw the following line in an article in Forbes (April 27) dealing with President Obama’s release of his long-form birth certificate:

"We're not going to be able to solve our problems if we get distracted by sideshows and carnival barkers."

-President Obama, on the controversy, stoked by Donald Trump, over whether he was born in the United States

As I was unfamiliar with the phrase carnival barker. I looked for the meaning on on-line dictionaries, and found the definition: "one who hangs out outside a party and warns people not to go in for any reason" (my emphasis) at Urban Dictionary.

Barker, as I understand, means "a person who stands outside a place where there is entertainment and shouts to people to go in," as Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines.

I was puzzled why barker, who is supposed to solicit people to come in, comes to mean one who warns people not to go in simply by being prefixed with carnival. Can somebody explain to me why? Is the definition at Urban Dictionary right?


5 Answers 5


I think what is going on in the Urban Dictionary definition you found is a description of someone at a carnival who is purposefully using reverse psychology in an attempt to actually get more people inside. I'm getting this from the definition's example sentence (Carnival Barker- "Don't go in there man it's haunted.") For example, such a carnival barker may target a man and a woman on a date. By saying to the man, "don't go in there, it's too scary," he could be seen as indirectly questioning the guy's "manhood," thus convincing him to go in and prove himself.

This is an admittedly confusing definition of carnival barker. For future reference, Urban Dictionary is often useful for very current slang and fun to play around with (try looking up your town or city), but it's not the best place for good definitions. Check out these "definitions" of Urban Dictionary at Urban Dictionary to get my point. And even for definitions of slang, be sure to check the poster's other entries for a sense of their credibility and take note of how many up vs. down votes their entry has.

  • Err... "For example, such a carnival barker may target a man and a woman on a date. By saying to the man, 'don't go in there, it's too scary.'"
    – MrHen
    Apr 29, 2011 at 18:17
  • @MrHen: Is the "Err..." for what I wrote, or how I wrote it? Apr 29, 2011 at 22:06
  • 3
    For the really awesome out of context implications.
    – MrHen
    Apr 29, 2011 at 22:55
  • @MrHen: Now I get it. Good one. Apr 29, 2011 at 23:09

To summarize:

  • Urban dictionary is not very reliable.
  • specifically, the example there of implying reverse psychology, is not defining, but rather a very incidental use.
  • 'carnival barker' is really not a set phrase so means literally a barker at a carnival.
  • 'carnival barker' is almost a tautology. barkers seem to only be at carnivals. OK, maybe a circus.

Urban Dictionary is the classic example of a collective website gone bad. StackExchange and Wikipedia aren't perfect but if you read something here, it's probably true, or likely true. You read something in Urban Dictionary, all you can conclude was that someone thought it was a good idea to type it in.

A carnival barker is a regular barker, working at a carnival.

  • @Callithumpian / Malvolio. That’s what I thought so. All my confusion started from seeing Urban Dictionary’s definition – Carnival barker warns people not to go in (for any reason). It can be just one of barkers’ techniques as Callithumpian referred to as the utilization of ‘Reverse psychology.’ Now I understood Carnival barker is simply a barker at carnival, and nothing else. Apr 29, 2011 at 4:18

here's another definition of barker:

An employee who stands before the entrance to a show, as at a carnival, and solicits customers with a loud sales spiel.

this doesn't necessarily have the confusion that the Urban Dictionary has


A carnival barker is not the opposite of barker. Carnival in this case is an adjective that describes the location of the barker. That's all. Barkers can be in many places. They are people who work for a sponsor and solicit business from the public. They have a pitch—location and also a prepared speech to entice a person in to a place or to look at or buy a product. Advertising is a form of barking for a particular sponsors. There are hundreds of examples.

The Urban Dictionary is a poor resource for any definitions. I also looked up several terms there. I began with barker and ended up with carni-rap. I found that both definitions were statements that did not define the terms and in both cases badly written and spelled. It serves to confuse and that is all.

Wikipedia is a far better resource and there are connections and references that are often a great help. The definitions and references are clear and concise. The Oxford and Webster dictionaries are also good value for a lot of terms.

Carnival barkers may use reverse psychology to get customers into whatever they are selling but the term itself is not reverse psychology.

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